OTTAWA – No matter how enjoyable at first, whooshing round and round the constrained oval of an ice rink can get monotonous for even the most die-hard skater.
But gliding on the ice through miles of pristine forest, with birds in the trees, paw prints of wildlife imprinted in the snow and a new discovery beckoning around every bend? That never gets old to skaters in Ottawa, and ice trails winding through woodlots are multiplying in and around the city, Canada’s capital, helping fill what seems to be an insatiable demand there for new recreational skating options.
“This is an actual childhood dream come true: to be able to skate anywhere you want,” said Michelle Reid, who drove with her husband, Lee Larson, for about two hours from Kingston, Ontario, to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary at Icelynd. , which became Ottawa’s sixth ice-trail network when it opened this January. “It’s travel by skate through a forest, instead of circles on a rink.”
Chris Neil, who played in the National Hockey League for 17 years, began cutting down trees last autumn to transform a patch of forest into Icelynd.
Chain saws in hand, he and one of his business partners, Jarrett Gibbons, plunged into the 25 acres of land that Mr. Neil owns. They had to chart new paths through the forest because the sorts of trails used for hiking, mountain biking, snow shoeing or cross-country skiing aren’t suited for skating. Slopes that would go unnoticed in any of those activities could mean water running downhill before it can freeze.
More worryingly, steep downhills can cause even experienced skaters to lose control – potentially creating a variation of ice cross downhill, the gladiatorial extreme sport in which contestants wearing full hockey gear plunge down ice tracks at speeds of up to 45 miles an hour.
When Mr. Neil and Mr. Gibbons encountered unexpected gradients as they felled trees, they were forced to abandon trail routes they’d sometimes spent days on – although there remained enough of a slope at the start of the trail to give even novice skaters a small taste of Olympic speedskating.
Mr. Neil, 42, spent his entire NHL career with the Ottawa Senators, mostly as the team’s enforcer, a player more prized for his ability with his fists than his goal-scoring skill. But he didn’t want Icelynd to be about hockey. He followed the lead of all but one of the local ice trail centers and banned sticks and pucks from the trails.
Ottawa’s residents take a perhaps perverse pleasure in living in one of the world’s coldest capitals. On a bitterly cold afternoon at Icelynd, there were several young boys sporting their team’s red and white hockey jerseys as they zipped around less confident adult skaters. Also making swift progress was Makalya Green, a student who was skating with her father, Neil. As they moved along one long straightaway, Makalya compared the experience to snowmobiling.
“Except it’s quieter,” her father added. “You can hear everything. The ice cracking, the wind in the trees. ” Referring to the temperature in Celsius, he added: “On a minus 20-something day, what else are you going to do?”
Several other skaters, including a family gathered around one of the fire pits dotted around the circuit, also praised this newcomer to the field skating scene, but noted that its trails were narrower than the original trail center in the capital region: the 3-kilometer Forest skating trail in Lac des Loups, Quebec, north of Ottawa.
When it opened a little over five years ago, that trail’s owner, Dave Mayer, said he anticipated that the trail, built across what had been his family’s farmland, might draw 3,000 people in its first season. But more people than that showed up the first weekend.
To compete against the free canal, the for-profit skate trail operators have harnessed two approaches for persuading people to pay. Unlike the skateway canal, which cuts through the heart of Ottawa’s downtown, the private initiatives promote themselves as a trip to the woods.
Mr. Mayer and Mr. Neil also aim to make their trail ice smoother than that of the canal. Cracks on the canal – formed when temperature fluctuations heave the ice – can grab skates, requiring paramedic patrols, sometimes in miniature on-ice ambulances.
Mr. Neil had a head start on keeping the surface of his ice smooth. Atypical even in Canada, both he and his business partner already owned their own ice-surfacing machines – similar to the Zambonis that appear between periods at NHL games – to care for their families’ at-home rinks.
But skaters have singled out for praise the smoothness of the ice at Patinage en Forêt. Mr. Mayer said it took him much trial and error to discover the secret to making kilometers of smooth, durable ice in the woods. He declined to reveal his formula, but it involves a water tanker outfitted at the rear with modified nozzles similar to those used by firefighters, in addition to an ice surfacing machine.
Because the canal and all the outdoor trails rely on natural ice, climate change is a big threat to their viability.
The canal and all the trails rely on natural ice. For the Rideau Canal Skateway, which welcomes up to 1.5 million skaters a year, that’s meant seasons in recent years as short as 18 skating days in 2016, well below the historical average of about 50 days.
This winter, several unseasonal thaws and rain storms shut down all the for-profit trails for a few days. Seasonal opening and closing dates are difficult to predict, complicating business plans.
The National Capital Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing canal skating, began working this year with engineers and scientists at Carleton University to find ways to extend, or at least preserve, the season. This season, the channel was open for 41 days, before closing on March 5.
One cold morning, before setting out to survey the canal’s ice using ground penetrating radar, Shawn Kenny, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering, said there’s little possibility of extending the season as March gets warmer, earlier.
But, he said, the research team is considering ways to allow for an earlier opening, including by spraying slush on the canal to build up the ice up more quickly.
While other Canadian communities have ice trails, no place boasts as many as Ottawa. So when Icelynd opened in January, Mr. Mayer was not pleased to have another competitor.
Icelynd not only has the advantage of its affiliation with a local hockey legend, but it’s also just a quick drive away for many Ottawa residents.
Lac des Loups, by contrast, is about an hour from the city center, so Mr. Mayer relies on both the reputation of his smooth ice to draw customers, as well as novel events, like torchlight skating nights, also offered at Arrowhead Provincial Park in Huntsville, Ontario.
In addition to the new competition, Mr. Mayer also faced another challenge this winter: Beginning in late January, a convoy of trucks and cars blockaded downtown Ottawa’s streets in a raucous protest against pandemic restrictions. Police soon closed most of the bridges to Quebec. On the few that were left open, gridlock led to hourslong delays.
But just before he headed out for the winter’s final night of sweeping and flooding, Mr. Mayer said he was still happy with his season and optimistic about the next.
“It was actually a very, very good year,” Mr. Mayer said. “So, yeah, I’d say we’re in business next year.”